CHAPTER FORTY NINE

Charlie wandered down from his cabin, talking to his friends, answering still remaining questions, assuring them that it was, indeed, over and done with. He knew that without question. A few days after the FBI had received that phone call from Colonel Smith, and picked up the men in the desert - living and dead - they had received another phone call, this one from local authorities. The last of Sinon's owners had been found, brutally murdered, out on the East coast.

There would be no uranium coming from the village property.

The FBI had been questioning everyone in the village, over and over, trying to find Edward Mordake. But only three people knew about Dr. Bursey, and they weren't talking. The FBI had the papers and Charlie as a witness, and as far as anyone living in the village was concerned, that was all they needed. Charlie had been whisked away to Washington to give his testimony, and unceremoniously returned three days later.

He had declined any further assistance from the FBI, or any branch of the government.

So he answered the questions asked, except for those pertaining to Ed. Those he couldn't answer, because he hadn't heard from him. Or Smith. Dr. Feist had inquired of his friend in Redding, and been told only that the patient had arrived for the initial appointment.

Charlie went out to Ed's trailer every few days, ostensibly to keep an eye on things. He dusted, and swept, and kept it from falling into disrepair. Kept it ready.

Just in case.

He laughed at himself, too, when he would stop at the rock and call out, waiting for Ed to tell him it was okay to come in. Waiting for Petey to come bounding out and wrestle with him. He knew immediately, each time he went out there, that the trailer was just as empty as it had been the last time he was there, but he waited anyway.

Just in case.

He hadn't been out there for a few days now. He really should go out again, but he wasn't as eager to go any more. It just depressed him. In spite of all his little eccentricities, Ed had brought a sort of light to Charlie's life that had been missing for a long time.

He missed Ed, very much.


*****

BA had watched the three of them walk in, watched them through the glass door, waiting for the elevator. Seen the hesitation. But they'd gone on up, just the same. And BA had heaved a deep sigh of relief.

He didn't really expect any trouble. He knew no one was going to tell the FBI about Bursey. No way Charlie would, and he didn't think Feist would, either, after all he'd done to get them here. He dismissed Cal. No way that bird would go near the FBI.

Well, not unless he found out about those guys yesterday. Then he might figure he was safer in jail than out on his own with the team on the loose. But that would be at least a day or more away. BA didn't think the FBI would be any too keen on letting the news out.

He also ruled out more of Sinon's guys coming in. They might have had a backup crew, but that guy at the end, he was too confident. Too cocky. He wouldn't have had a backup crew. Any more than Hannibal would have.

He shifted in his seat, and glanced over at the dog. Sitting in Hannibal's seat. Actually, standing on it, front feet up on the dash, eyes glued to the door where Face had disappeared. Hannibal wouldn't like that. BA wasn't all that crazy about it either. Damn dog was shedding. But he was Face's dog. BA could always vacuum out the van later.

He looked around the parking lot. More cars moving in now. He sat up a little straighter. He's seen the doctor go in earlier, right on schedule. Shouldn't be anyone else going in Bursey's door. They wouldn't get far if they did.

He looked over at the dog again. Squirming nervously, but he wouldn't take his eyes away from the door. BA understood how he felt. He'd rather be up there with the rest of them than down here. Didn't matter, though. This was his job. Making sure the rest of them were covered. Safe.

He looked up at the building, noting where Bursey's office must be. The dog whined softly.

Still watching Bursey's floor, BA reached over and idly rubbed the dog's ear.

He knew exactly how he felt.


*****

The waiting room was hushed, every sound deadened by the thick carpet, the soft furniture. Even the wallpaper seemed to cushion them. The receptionist was busy filing papers, typing quietly. Hannibal wondered how they managed that. It was almost claustrophobic, it was so cocoon like. He looked at Face, out of the corner of his eye. He looked calm. But then, he was half asleep. Maybe it was a good thing he'd had such a restless night.

Murdock, on the other hand, was nervously tapping his fingers on the arm of the couch, looking around the room. Hannibal noted he never looked at Face. He wondered why. Face glanced at Murdock's drumming fingers. Hannibal cleared his throat softly. Murdock quit drumming.

Dr. Bursey had come in a few minutes ago, nodded and smiled warmly as he passed by them into his office. Now the phone purred, the receptionist listened for a second before hanging up, and then looked up at them.

"Dr. Bursey will see you now." He smiled at Face.

"Want us to go in with you, Ed?" Hannibal kept his voice low. Murdock looked at Face for the first time since coming into the office.

"No, I'm fine."

Hannibal and Murdock watched as Face limped toward the inner sanctum. The receptionist stood and gave him his arm to lean on. Face hesitated for a moment before taking it.

Hannibal stared at the carpet. He wished he had a cigar.

Murdock drummed softly on the arm of the couch.


*****

Nick watched Charlie coming down the hill. He waited for him to get closer before going out on his porch. It was true, he supposed, what the others were saying. Charlie's walk was a little slower, had a little less bounce to it. Hell, he walked like an old man.

Nick knew, as he was sure everyone else did, what had changed Charlie. It wasn't hard to figure out. And it wasn't dealing with the FBI or all those other government types that Charlie hated so. That was just the icing on the cake.

Nick shook his head. What was it about Ed that had affected Charlie so? Oh, he knew all about Charlie's son, but it was more than that. Charlie had seen something in Ed. Something that others seemed to sense, as well. Even Nick had felt it. That was the funny thing about Ed. Three people in the whole damn village had actually met him, and yet everybody was worrying about him, wondering when he was coming home. He guessed it was true.

Ed really did belong to them.

Charlie was almost at Nick's cabin now, and he stepped out to greet him. Charlie looked up at him and smiled, a tired, sad smile.

Damn...


*****

It had taken some time. It had been painful, despite the care Bursey took. But the damage from the beating had been repaired, as much as it could be for now. Bursey had insisted they take care of that, first and foremost. Bursey had even checked the leg, treating it like all his patients walked in with bullet wounds.

Face liked this man.

Then had come the X-rays, the photographs, the measurements. Bursey had Face go back to the waiting room while he messed around with some fancy computer program. This was the part Face wasn't sure about.

Bursey was going to show him what he would look like, when it was all done.

He'd had a moment's soft panic, when he first went back out to Hannibal and Murdock. The look on both their faces when they'd seen the butterfly bandages. Must have taken them back a few months. Took him back, too, but no way he was going to admit it. He'd shown them all the weaknesses he was going to. So he gave them what he hoped was a reassuring smile, and they, in turn, covered their dismay and smiled reassuringly back.

And then the three of them sat there, like rocks, waiting for Dr. Bursey.

The second time Face was called back to the office, Hannibal had again offered to go with him, and this time, Face agreed. It obviously surprised but pleased the colonel. When Murdock stood to go with him, Face hesitated until Murdock smiled and wrapped his arm around Face's shoulder.

"You and me, muchacho. You and me," Murdock almost whispered it.

The three men sat on one side of a large desk, Dr. Bursey stood on the other. The moment Dr. Bursey opened his mouth, and Face heard those familiar words about the extent of the damage and the limits of plastic surgery, he pretty much knew what those pictures would look like. He steeled himself to see the "renderings", as Dr. Bursey put it. Heard the precautionary, "Now, these are really just rough sketches. In reality..." as the doctor started placing the computer pictures on the table in front of him. And he had to admit, there was an improvement.

Instead of a monster, he now looked at a mere freak.


*****

Murdock kicked himself, mentally. He had warned himself over and over not to get his hopes up. He didn't want his own disappointment to show, didn't want to take a chance on messing up things for Face. He had to force himself to be upbeat, to ask questions in a tone that said, "That's great, Doc!". He had to.

Because Face wasn't asking any questions.

Bursey started explaining things, looking always at Face, waiting for some kind of reaction. The longer he got silence in return, the deeper his frown grew. Finally, after answering yet another of Murdock's questions, he looked at Face, concerned.

"Do you have any questions at all?"

Face had looked at the pictures again, and then said, very quietly, "No."

"Well, shall we set up the appointments then?"

"No."

"No?" Murdock couldn't help it. He couldn't believe Face was doing this. Certainly he wasn't going to look the greatest, but anything was an improvement. Wasn't it?

"No, Murdock." Face looked at Bursey, apologetically. "I'm sorry for wasting your time, Doctor. But there really isn't any point going any further. You know it as well as I do."

"Granted, we can't do a lot, but..."

"No. Thank you again, Doctor." Face stood up, shook the dazed doctor's hand, and limped out. Hannibal, who hadn't said one word either, silently rose and followed him.

Dr. Bursey looked up at Murdock. "Please talk to him. These pictures really don't do justice..."

"I will, doc. But don't count on him changing his mind."

Murdock stood and was about to leave when he had a sudden thought. He turned back, gathered the pictures, and nodded goodbye.

You never knew...


*****

"Still no word?"

"No, nothing." Charlie sighed, settled more comfortably in the rocker on Nick's porch. People walked by, nodding hello. Charlie was once again hit by the feeling that this was a good place to live. A very good place. For everyone.

"You don't suppose Smith is making him stay with them?"

"I don't know, Nick. I wouldn't think so, but Smith can be a stubborn man. He can also be persuasive, I would think, especially where Ed's concerned. Well, who knows? Maybe he was right. Maybe the best place for Ed is with his team."

"Ed? With that team of mercenaries? Are you out of your mind?" Nick's voice rose with surprise and anger. "No way, Charlie. Those guys'll chew him up and spit him out. And God only knows where they'll leave him when they do."

"You don't really believe that, Nick. Smith wouldn't have kept him with them if they didn't care about him."

"If he's still alive." Nick hated to bring up the possibility, but Charlie had to face it. The last word they had had on the team was the FBI's report of the gunfight. No one knew if any of the team had been hurt, because the survivors had refused to talk at all.

Charlie turned and stared at Nick, incredulous. "Of course, he's still alive!"

Nick looked back, sadness in his eyes. "Then why haven't they contacted you, Charlie? Where are they?"


*****

"It's not working, is it?"

"I don't know, Murdock. He's trying, we're trying."

"I think that might be the problem."

Hannibal looked at Murdock, puzzled. "What? How could that be the problem?"

Murdock took a deep breath. He'd been thinking about this for some time, and he thought he had it figured out.

"The problem, Hannibal, is that now he's with us, he's started falling back into the old habit of trying to be what we want him to be. But we all want him to be who he really is, whoever that is. But he can't figure out who he is, because he hasn't been himself for who knows how long, and we're not giving him any clues as to who he should be. But he does think we're not happy with him being Ed, which is who he is now. He thinks we really want him to be Face, but he can't be Face any more. So then he thinks he's failing us again, and he tries to be somebody else that we would want. And that's not what we want. So it's not what he wants. So nobody's happy, and it's driving him nuts."

Hannibal was looking at Murdock, glassy-eyed. "Murdock, let's just accept that what we've been doing isn't working, okay?"

"Well, we know what he really wants, Hannibal."

"I know, Murdock. I know. I just don't know if that's really the best thing for him."

The two men sat for a long time, silent, uncomfortable. Murdock began lightly drumming his fingers on the kitchen table. Hannibal looked out the back door, where BA was working on the van. He'd found a new bumper and windshield, and was busy putting them in place.

Hannibal couldn't see Face, but knew he was close. He never went far from any of them.

Physically.

Hannibal was well aware that Face wasn't happy. But he had thought he'd adjusted. He should've known better. The way Face had refused Bursey's help. And then had accepted, without any argument, Hannibal's announcement that they were going to stay together for a while, instead of taking him back to the village. As though, having made the choice not to have any surgery, he no longer cared where he was or who he was with. And, while Hannibal didn't necessarily think Face was going 'nuts', he had noticed that the longer Face was with the team, the more frequently those damn voices seemed to chime in. Not that he was answering them out loud any more. He'd just tilt his head, suddenly, and seemed to tune everything else out. Murdock would call him on it, when he was around, and Face would either get embarrassed or upset. Hannibal supposed that depended on what the voices were telling him. Unfortunately, the little openness about those conversations Face had had back in the van seemed to have disappeared. Embarrassed or upset, he would deny he was hearing voices, or anything else. If they caught him answering the voices, he claimed he was just talking to the dog.

Hannibal looked over at Murdock, still drumming on the table, staring off into space. Hannibal was worried about Murdock, too. He seemed to be losing ground. His conversations were getting more and more convoluted, and he was more easily upset. Which was another reason Hannibal didn't think taking Face back to the village was a good idea. At least with Face here, Murdock's imagination wasn't going into overdrive. He could see exactly how Face was faring. On the other hand, Murdock was obsessed with trying to help develop this new persona, and that seemed to be putting more pressure on Face. And Hannibal was sure Face saw Murdock slipping as well as he did. The two of them were feeding off each other's problems and that was not good.

There was a clang of metal outside, and both Hannibal and Murdock whipped around in their chairs. Hannibal could see BA, turned toward the yard, heard his voice, soft. Okay, Face was definitely out there with him, then. Murdock stood and wandered outside to join them.

BA was Hannibal's anchor. Whatever issues the man had with Hannibal's past actions, he'd put them aside. The two of them were working together now, trying to provide some sort of stability for the team. Hannibal had learned one thing. When BA gave him that look, he shut up and thought about what he was saying, what he was planning, and why. He'd been amazed and humbled at how many times BA had had to do that, how often Hannibal had started straying from the path they'd chosen.

Because this was about Face now. Not about the team, not about Hannibal, or BA, or even Murdock. But no matter how hard they tried, what Murdock said was true. It wasn't working. Despite their good intentions, despite the fact that they were working toward the right goal, it just wasn't working.

Hannibal was afraid they hadn't just lost Face. He was beginning to worry they were losing Ed as well.